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annaWhile watching Downton Abbey, I was thinking about Armistead Maupin’s The Days of Anna Madrigal (HarperCollins, digital galley), the ninth and supposedly final entry in the long-running Tales of the City series. It’s not so much a stretch as you might suppose. For starters, there’s Laura Linney, who introduces Masterpiece Theatre and who played Mary Ann Singleton in the Tales miniseries and is so identified with the character that Maupin dedicated his last novel, Mary Ann in Autumn, to her.

Anna Madrigal, of course, was embodied by Olympia Dukakis, and she is as inseparable from that role as Maggie Smith is from Downton’s Lady Violet. They both are formidable family matriarchs. And that’s my point. Both the Tales of the City series and Downton Abbey are family sagas with all the inherent drama, conflict and reconciliation as the years go by.

Anna, since her bohemian landlady days at 28 Barbary Lane, has presided over her “logical” — as opposed to biological — family with humor, grace and the ability to keep a secret.  Her own secrets have come out over the course of the books, and now, at 92, she still has a few more. These are revealed gradually in the new novel, which, while not exactly a stroll down memory lane, is still something of an episodic ramble. Flashbacks to Anna’s 1930s childhood in Winnemucca, Nev., when she was Andy Ramsey, son of the local brothel owner, are interspersed with current events as a sojourn to Burning Man by the other returning characters (Michael and husband Ben, Anna’s young roommate Jake, Brian’s daughter Shawna) coincides with Anna’s road trip with Brian and his new love to Winnemucca via Winnebago.

People, places and happenings are closely observed, from the familiar  in San Francisco to the strange in the desert of Burning Man, where bi-sexual Shawna is determined to conceive a child and where Mary Ann shows up in the first-aid tent. Meanwhile, Anna is searching out old landmarks in Winnemucca, where a family fun park becomes the site of an unexpected reunion and a neatly foreshadowed surprise.

Despite a few laugh-aloud set pieces and its overall wit, The Days of Anna Madrigal casts a bittersweet spell. As a friend noted, it’s sadly satisfying. Finishing it reminded me how much I’ve enjoyed the series and fow how long, as I noted in my blog post on Mary Anne in Autumn, https://patebooks.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/friending-mary-ann/

Now the tales have ended. Hail and farewell.

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Over at the awesome bookriot.com (Always books. Never boring), the results are in. More than 1300 Riot readers recently responded to the challenge Name Your Favorite Novel, and “after many glorious nerdy hours tallying the data,” the Riot chiefs have posted the Top 50.  Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird claimed first place, followed by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby rounds out the top 5.

I remember two of the titles I nominated — TKAM and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is No. 14, but I have several other favs that rotate in and out of my top 5 depending on my mood or category: le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, girlhood classic Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, du Maurier’s Rebecca, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Oh, I can go on and on, book geek that I am.

Which brings me to a new favorite, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour-Bookstore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, purchased digital edition), a light-hearted, high-spirited literary adventure quest combining tree-books, e-books, typefaces, codes, cryptographers, hackers, a secret society of readers, a fictional book about dragon-singers, a subterranean library in New York City, and the quest for immortality in the digital age. It’s funny, smart, charming — all the things you want in a new best friend. I have a feeling it would laugh at my jokes.

Early on, narrator/night clerk Clay describes his obscure place of employment in San Francisco — a tall and skinny out-of-the-way building, with laddered shelves reaching into the heavens, the kind of bookstore that would appeal to a teenage wizard, in fact “makes you want to be a teenage wizard.” Up front is a small selection of used books for sale — Dashiell Hammett, classic SF, the new bio of Steve Jobs — but behind, in the almost-menacing shadows, are stacks of mysterious volumes that Clay refers to as the “Waybacklist.”

The customers for those books are few but devoted, arriving in the middle of the night to return one rare volume in exchange for another. Clay has to log in each purchase and its buyer in detail, but ancient, blue-eyed Mr. Penumbra has warned him not to read the books. Odd. Very odd. And soon to get odder as Clay, a RISD graduate and website designer, enlists a merry band of friends (a pretty Google code genius, a wealthy digital start-up entrepreneur),  to help him uncover the bookstore’s secrets even as he develops a new marketing plan and Mr. Penumbra goes missing. There’s a villain named Corvina, and a hero . . . Not going to tell you.

His brief bio reveals that Robin Sloan grew up in Michigan and now divides his time between San Francisco and the Internet. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is his first novel. I hope he writes many more. Meanwhile, for those of you who belong to GoodReads, the voting is now open for the 2012 choices in 20 categories. Mr. Penumbra is a nominee in fiction. I’ve already voted.

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I would so friend Mary Ann Singleton if she really were on Facebook. She was always one of my favorite characters in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels, and I loved how Laura Linney played her as the naive newcomer to 1970s San Francisco  in the miniseries.

Maupin dedicates Mary Ann in Autumn to Linney, and it’s so easy to see her now as a young-looking  57 returning to San Francisco after 20 years away, realizing once again that your friends can be your family. She’s been hurt and humiliated by her wealthy second husband, and she needs to share some unsettling news with friend, Mouse, aka Michael Tolliver.  They’ve been BFFs since before anyone ever used such an expression, back when they lived at 28 Barbary Lane, renting from enigmatic Anna Madrigal, and both were looking for Mr. Right.

So now Mary Ann takes refuge in Michael and his partner Ben’s garden  cottage, although young Ben is initially wary. Like Jake, Michael’s transgendered assistant, he thinks Mary Ann is a drama queen, but, as Michael points out “she’s had some actual drama.” And that increases when Ben introduces her to Facebook, and Mary Ann, who thought the past had escaped her, begins reconnecting with “her lost wonderland” ands its quirky residents.

Unlike 2007’s first-person Michael Tolliver Lives!, which resurrected the original six-book series after almost 20 years,  Maupin returns to the multi-character perspectives and plots that served him well when Tales began as a newspaper serial. He then cleverly  interlocks the charming chapter set pieces — Ben chatting at the dog park, Mary Ann’s estranged adopted daughter Shawna befriending an angry homeless woman, Jake tending to the increasingly frail Anna Madrigal — as if completing a jigsaw puzzle, even as he moves the narrative forward. Readers may well guess at what overall picture will emerge, but that doesn’t take away from his winsome portrait of Mary Ann, Michael and the others facing age and change, regret and redemption. San Francisco, now and then, may be the setting, but Maupin shows his true territory is what he calls “the gender neutrality of the human heart.”  

Open Book: I missed a recent high school reunion but have enjoyed catching up with old friends on Facebook. Reading Armistead Maupin’s Mary Ann in Autumn (Harper), which I bought in hardcover for my Tales of the City collection, is like the best Facebook status update ever.

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